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Imagination: Biblically Holy, or Evil?

  • Michael Card Patheos.com
  • Published Sep 09, 2011
Imagination: Biblically Holy, or Evil?

Editor's Note: This article is posted courtesy of Patheos Book Club.

"Come follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." ~ Mark 1:17

Of all the mysterious moments, he seems most approachable at this particular moment, most inviting, most available, most human. We imagine the would-be disciples looking up from their nets and fish, smiling at his creative figure of speech. It is a warm Galilee spring day. It is silent, not even the sound of a bird. The sand is warm between their toes. It is an inviting moment, almost cozy. We have imagined this scene during 100 sermons. The excitement of the disciples' hearts resonates in ours. If we had been there on that 29 A.D. morning, we would have left everything too. If, like me, this is how you first imagined that long-ago moment, like me . . . you would have been completely wrong.

We "imagine . . ." What do you mean when you say those words? More importantly, what are you really doing when you "imagine"? As created beings, one of our greatest treasures, perhaps the dearest fingerprint of God in us, is our ability to imagine. But inevitably, whenever I speak about the "biblical imagination" someone will object, "Isn't the imagination a bad thing? Doesn't the Bible say our imaginations are "evil"?

It is a pervasive opinion and there are understandable reasons for it. I think it is founded in the fact that whenever the King James Bible uses the word "imagination" it does so in a negative sense (e.g. " . . . every imagination was evil . . ." Gen. 6:5). Clearly, if we are going to seek to use our imaginations and speak of a "biblical imagination," we need to address this valid concern.

In the Old Testament, King James uses the term "imagination" five times (Gen. 6:5; Dt. 29:19; Jer. 3:17; Prov. 6:18; Lam. 3:60). In four of the five references, the Hebrew word heart (lav) is used. Literally, the Old Testament speaks of the "conceptions" of the heart (Gen. 6:5) or the stubbornness of the heart (Dt. 29:19; Jer. 3:17) or the evil plots of the heart (Prov. 6:8). In Lamentations 3, though the word for heart does not appear, in verse 60 the same word for "plots" of the heart that is used in Proverbs 6 appears (mahashbet). Though "lav" or "heart" does not appear we can safely say it is implied. In the Old Testament "plots and evil schemes" happen in the heart. There is no singular word for "imagination" in Hebrew.

In the New Testament, the word "imagination" appears three times in King James (Lk. 1:51; Rom. 1:21; 2 Cor. 10:5). In these references, two of the three also speak or refer to the heart (kardia). In the first reference, Mary is singing. She rejoices at the radical reversal her baby boy will eventually bring to the world. In verse 51 she sings literally:

[By] his strong arm he has thoroughly scattered
the arrogant intelligence of their hearts
. (author's translation)

In Romans 1, Paul, speaking of the coming judgment of God, says of the wicked, "their reasonings were futile and the understandings of their hearts were darkened" (author's translation).

In the final New Testament reference in which King James uses the word "imagination" (2 Cor. 10:5), another form of the word "reasonings" (logismos) from Romans 1:21 is used. Again though the word "heart" (kardia) does not appear, it is safe to say it is implied. In the New Testament, as in the Old, the place where "dark reasonings" occur are primarily in the heart. The problem then, is not in the simple use of the word "imagination." The problem is one of the heart. The Word of God is seeking to recapture and redeem our hearts for God's glory. Is the heart wicked? Without a doubt, yes! Should our hearts be involved in understanding the Bible? Without a doubt, yes!

Back to the first question . . . When we "imagine," what is it we are doing? I don't pretend to fully understand the mystery of the human heart, but I believe it is safe to say that when we "imagine," something is taking place in our hearts; literally our minds are working with our hearts to create images (hence image-ination). But the heart and mind must work in concert; they must be connected by a bridge. In my thinking, this is what I call the imagination. It is a bridge between the heart and mind. It seeks to re-integrate and reconnect them, since they were fragmented by the Fall. The imagination that has been surrendered to God for this process of listening to the scriptures, I call the "biblical imagination."

(Before we move on to the next point, you might want to stop and think about what's been said thus far. Take time to turn it over in your own heart, to go back to the biblical references above to confirm this notion of the surrendered heart and the biblical imagination.)

Finally, let's discuss what is meant by the word "informed." In this series we speak of "engaging with scripture at the level of the informed imagination." This was the approach of my friend and mentor, the late William Lane. It is an approach that shaped everything he did, from the writing of two major commentaries to the way he lived out his daily extraordinary life.

I opened with a cozy scene of Jesus calling his disciples from Mark 1:17. I began by painting the scene, that is, by imagining it as you and I have probably done many times before. It is an attractive picture but not necessarily a biblical one. You see, it was imagined by an uninformed imagination. Let's retell the same scene from a more biblically informed perspective.

Jesus has recently returned from his ordeal in the wilderness where, as only Mark tells us, he was "with the wild beasts." Perhaps there is still some reflection of this intense period of temptation on his face. Secondly, he has just discovered that his cousin, John, has been thrown into prison by the bloodthirsty Herod. It doesn't require Jesus' prophetic imagination to see that John's life will not last much longer. We will see in Mark an ever-present shadow of the prospect of persecution. That shadow looms large over this opening scene. It is not cozy, it is ominous.

Finally there is the business of Jesus' creative appeal to the tired fisherman that he will make them "fishers of men." Once you spend some time with the Jesus of the Gospels, you will quickly learn that almost everything he said is rooted in the Old Testament. He breathes the Torah. This opening appeal is no different.

It is rooted in the book of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. (I have wondered if the people mistook Jesus for Jeremiah because he was so open with his tears. See Matthew 16:14.) The passage in Jeremiah (16:16) is the prelude to a song about the day of disaster: "but now I will send for many fishermen," declares the Lord, "and they will catch them . . ."

The passage has to do with judgment and destruction. This is the background to the passage in the first chapter of Mark. It is not a cozy scene but one overshadowed with the serious prospect of the mission to which the disciples will soon be called. Jesus' words are neither warm nor inviting. They are ominous and powerful. The task of fishing for men and women is deadly serious business.

Once we have done our homework we return to the passage with an informed imagination. Only then does it come to life. (Even the image of the sand between the disciples' toes was wrong. The shore of Galilee is extremely rocky. Neither would it have been a silent moment, as was said earlier. Galilee is the major flyway between Africa and Europe. The sound of birds is always present!)

I agree with those who would be cautious of using the word "imagination," for with an uninformed imagination Jesus is merely a figment of the imagination. But when the imagination is surrendered along with the heart and mind, it becomes a unifying bridge that opens the scriptures in a new and meaningful way.

Return to the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on cultivating a holy imagination, as well as additional resources on Michael Card's new book Luke: The Gospel of Amazement.

Michael Card is an award-winning musician, writer, and performing artist who is perhaps best known and most appreciated for the meticulous biblical study that supports the themes and lyrics of his creative compositions. His newest bookLuke: The Gospel of Amazementis the first in his new Biblical Imagination Series.
This article is part of the Patheos Book Club Series at Patheos.com. Reprinted with permission.